Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Enough!

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’…
Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ’
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” ’ The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. And Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until morning.’ But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.

Exodus 16: 2-3; 9-21 (NRSV)


There is a story that a miser hid his gold buried at the foot of a tree at the bottom of his garden. Once a week he would dig up his gold, gaze at it for an hour, and then rebury it. One day a thief came in the night and stole the gold. When the miser came to look at his gold he found only a hole, and gave out a distressed shriek. A neighbour heard the shriek and wandered over to ask, “What on earth is the matter?” The miser explained that the gold he kept at the bottom of his garden had been stolen. The neighbour asked, “Well, did you ever actually spend the gold?”
“No. I just gazed at it,” replied the miser.
“Well, for all the good it was doing you,” said the neighbour, “You might as well gaze at a hole.”

This is how people are. Some people become rich enough to buy a Ferrari – wow – fantastic! Then they start thinking, “What if I scratch it? What if I crash it? What if I easily rev up with this powerful engine and get snapped by a speed camera? What if someone vandalises it? What if they steal it?” So they decide to pay to keep their Ferrari in a luxury car high-security storage depot.

These places exist; and if you leave your car there they will polish it once a week, they’ll run the engine once a fortnight so it doesn’t seize up, and they’ll roll the cars back and forth to prevent the tyres developing flat-spots. And so you own a Ferrari! – that you never use.

One manager at one of these storage depots has said, “I don’t know why some people have them. One bloke with a £100,000 Ferrari just turns up, takes the car round the block and comes back. Others just sit in them, smell the leather and listen to the stereo.” (John Naish, Enough page 75-76)

“For all the good it’s doing you, you might as well gaze at a hole”

This is the madness of the world we live in. The madness of enjoying buying things more than enjoying having them. This is highlighted in a book called Enough by John Naish – who is a Unitarian from Brighton. In the book John Naish gives lots of these crazy examples of our excessive living, and argues we need to learn “enoughism.” This means getting over our irrational addiction to buying more stuff. For our own sakes and for the sake of the world.

The problem is we don’t know when to stop. Scientists have done experiments with soup bowls – that secretly have holes in the bottom that pump in more soup. So people eat, and eat, and eat, and the soup keeps coming, and without that cue that the bowl is empty people end up eating huge amounts of soup. Most people are incapable of saying “I’ve had enough soup.”

We’re not very good at this. And it’s easy to see why – in our evolutionary past we needed to eat as much as we could because we didn’t know when the next meal was coming. But that’s not the world we live in anymore. Now we’re all becoming like the famous Mr Creosote from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Mr Creosote is huge man who comes into the restaurant, and eats everything, absolutely everything, vomiting and then eating again. And finally the waiter offers one more “wafer-thin mint” that he forces down – and then, literally, explodes. There was no ability to say “enough.”

That is the parable of our modern world. It is predicted that the majority of Westerners will be obese or overweight in the next twenty years. But this isn’t just about food. It’s about everything. We’re in a culture that tells us we need more and more of everything. Our economic system is built on a need for us all to keep buying huge amounts of stuff that none of us need.

I’ve previously talked about a spirituality of abundance. A spirituality based on an understanding that we live in paradise – a world of abundance and plenty, and that we should celebrate life’s goodness: beauty, food, love, sensuality. And maybe it seems what I’m saying today contradicts that. But it doesn’t. Those who eat most, tend to be those who eat fastest, and eat while not paying attention to eating – eating watching TV, or while working. Whereas really enjoying your food, savouring it, experiencing it, means you eat slower, and you eat less.

It’s about mindfulness – I come back to this a lot – because it’s one of the key spiritual practices we need to be practising – paying full attention – being more aware. The Buddhists teach this a lot – but other traditions say it too. We need to deeply experience life – mindfully, fully, joyfully, - so we will realise that we have enough.

That story from Exodus is about enoughness. The Israelites are in the wilderness – and they complain they’re hungry. And so miraculously food is provided – quails and manna from heaven. They have enough – every day they have enough. But when they try to have more than enough – when they keep some over for tomorrow, it rots away by morning. Manna is enough for today, but not enough for tomorrow. They had to live day to day, in the present. This a parable about enoughness: the Israelites had to learn to be satisfied with today’s bread, and for that to be enough.

When we think of religious groups like the Amish – who have no televisions, no cars, no technology – we probably think they’re a bit weird, a bit eccentric, a bit mad. But when we look at our lives, of the huge amount of stuff we have, coming out of our ears, coming out of our cupboards, overflowing from our attics, filling up the spare room. You have to start wondering – who are the mad ones? Someone who decides to live very simply – or someone who gets a new mobile phone every year? Someone who throws away loads of perfectly good stuff – or stores it in cupboards that are never opened? Or pays good money to a self-storage company to keep stuff for them?

I’m not arguing for us to live like the Amish. But there must be a middle way. This is what the Buddha taught: the middle way. He started by starving himself, then decided that moderation was much better for enlightenment – and he ate a bowl of rice breaking his fast.

This is ultimately a spiritual issue. And I think it’s up to people of faith to model a different way of being in this commercialised excessive world. It’s about frugality: now frugality may seem like a rather serious word. Being frugal sounds like being a penny-pincher, being mean. But the word “frugal” comes from a root that means fruitfulness. It means appreciating the abundance of what we have. Mindfully, joyfully, enjoying what we have; being deeply grateful for what we have; and deciding: no I don’t need any more, I have enough. The blessings of what I already have are enough. If we can do this – we might just find a way to live joyfully and abundantly, but not excessively.

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